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Justice: Two Stories from Sisters Teaching in Vietnam

“Why do you want to go to Vietnam this summer? Isn’t it really hot and humid there?

My answer to these questions is grounded in the context of the word INVITATION. In Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John, Jean Vanier explores the idea that justice begins with a personal relationship. For Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, the relationship begins with Jesus, who says “come and live an experience of love, healing, and a new inner freedom.” For me, the invitation came through an email from Kay Burton, SNJM who in turn in 2001 was invited by Agnes Ly Thi Le, SNJM to visit her homeland and explore the possibility of SNJMs collaborating with Lovers of the Holy Cross (Sister Le’s former religious community).

Perhaps in the first years of the 21st century we did not realize that we would be pioneers in learning how to “come and see” as Jesus invited us (SNJMs and other volunteers from Canada and the United States) to live for a few weeks in the summer in an intercultural and intergenerational community to assist the Lovers of the Holy Cross develop skills with conversational English.

Perhaps in these first years we did not understand that we would be pioneers in the spirit of Eulalie Durocher learning how to network with Vietnamese Americans in Seattle to undertake fundraising to help fulfill one of Sister Le’s dreams of contributing to the LHC ministries to orphans, pregnant teens and handicapped people in Central Vietnam.

As I reflect on my experience of the invitation to “A Call to Vietnam,” I realize there was a longing in my heart to live with the newer members of the Lovers of the Holy Cross, where we heard their rising bell at 4:00 a.m. I felt called to respond to the challenge of teaching 13 young women who hoped to teach some English to pre-school children, or to serve in a parish, or to be accepted into a college in the United States.

Based upon our first classroom conversations in small bursts, we talked about the polluted waters of the South China Sea that caused the death of many fish this spring. From these conversations of a few sentences from each student, we moved to face the challenge of Pope Francis in Laudato Si’ calling each of us to care for our Earth.

Our singing classes were probably the highlight of the day for the students Sister Kathleen and I taught. From “Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace” to “Tony Knows” (with gestures), we got in our vocal exercise and practiced precise diction.

According to Sister Kay, “We had two wonderful teachers for our Vietnamese students this past July! I enjoyed visiting the classes on occasion and could see the growth in the young Sister-students’ ability to speak clearly and to understand our SNJM English.”

Mary Annette Dworshak, SNJM

As is often the case, why I accepted the invitation to go to Vietnam and what I experienced were not identical. I lived and traveled in Asia when it was not possible to visit Vietnam, so it has been a “missing piece” of that part of our globe for me. During the last few years, I’ve also become increasingly aware of the deeply intercultural fabric of our “A Call to Vietnam” ministry with the Lovers of the Holy Cross Sisters in Hue. So I eagerly accepted the invitation to participate as one of this summer’s English teachers.

I taught English conversation and teaching strategies to fifteen young sisters, some of whom had classroom experience or worked with orphans. Most were looking forward to being pre-school teachers after they complete their initial religious formation program. I enjoy teaching and they were wonderful students, willing to repeat words until they were able to produce the appropriate sounds. Consonants, some of which don’t exist in Vietnamese, present particular challenges.

I was impressed with the beauty of the lush green, mountainous countryside and the still labor-intensive pattern of life for many, including the Sisters. The Community’s gracious hospitality was evident daily. In addition to being a valuable intercultural experience which strengthened my students’ English, work for justice is integral to all that this collaborative ministry accomplishes. The Sisters, no longer permitted to operate elementary and high schools, have few sources of revenue. Enhancing the English program within their preschools contributes to their ability to sustain their community life and all of their ministries to the most marginalized elements of Vietnamese society. They raise handicapped and orphaned children for whom families cannot care and maintain a workshop that provides meaningful work for blind adults. They deeply appreciate our presence with them and the generosity of donors to the ministry that make us participants in their work for justice.

Kathleen Hilton, SNJM